Monday, December 06, 2004 +

Triduum of the Immaculate Conception — Day 1

Kevin O’Connor, PhD, a parishioner of our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY, is presenting a triduum in celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Here are Professor O’Connor’s first day's remarks:

The Immaculate Conception: What is it?

This Wednesday will mark the 150th Anniversary of the Dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception. When Pope Pius IX issued the Apostolic Constitution INEFFABILIS DEUS, he put to rest the centuries old discussion on the appropriate wording regarding Mary’s freedom from Original Sin.

The fact that the Mother of God remained sinless throughout her life is a doctrine taught by the Early Church Fathers—East and West. It appears in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch before the year one hundred; in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Origen in the second century; in Hippolytus, Ephraim, Ambrose, Gregory, Augustine, etc, etc.

The importance of Pius IX’s definition is that it clearly stated in dogmatic form that Mary was spared from Original sin at the moment of her conception. The actual definition reads:

…that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

One may rightly ask why the distinction of being spared at CONCEPTION is so important. What would be the difference if Mary were spared from Original Sin while in the womb? Or why did she not simply have Original Sin removed from her at Baptism like the rest of us? Although it might seem inconsequential at first, the distinction is absolutely crucial—especially so for Catholics.

When Sin came into the world, it irreparably changed humankind. Although you and I no longer bear the full burden of Original Sin removed at Baptism, we still bear a debilitating mark of that sin. Medieval theologians called it CONCUPISCENCE: a fancy way of saying that you and I, despite our best efforts, heartfelt repentance and fervent prayer, have a remarkable resiliency against grace. To put it even more bluntly, nothing causes us to sin like sin.

Evidence in support of this belief can be found even outside Christianity. An avowed atheist and critic of Religion [Nietzsche] once wrote that “Original Sin is the one thing about Christianity you don’t have to prove.” In other words, there is something obviously wrong with the way we treat one another, the way we sometimes defend our indefensible actions—our own cruelty toward the weak or the poor or even the unborn. This is the cost of the Fall that remains with us even today.

St. Paul himself addressed this tendency that afflicts all of us in the shadow of Adam:

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

Sin begets sin; and it is no small thing that the second sin tends to be easier to rationalize than supthe first

Since Mary was CONCEIVED without Original Sin, however, she is exempt from these residual effects of such sin. Original Sin was never REMOVED from Mary; it simply NEVER EXISTED within her. That’s the point of the dogma itself.

Critics have said and continue to say, “But this makes Mary completely different from the rest of us.” To which the Church replies, “You are quite right.” “But,” the argument continues, “This goes against the biblical doctrine that everyone is saved through grace.” To which the Church replies, “You are quite wrong.”

Mary is NOT outside the realm of Christ’s salvation. On the contrary, she is the FIRST member of the Church saved by Christ. The most crucial theological element of Pius IX’s definition is that Mary’s freedom from Original Sin is God’s GIFT TO MARY—the result of a “singular grace and privilege.” It is the greatest gift ever bestowed upon a human being, but it is a gift nonetheless.

Indeed, what could be more obviously unmerited than that which is given at conception? We cannot even pretend to merit what came to be at the first moment of our existence. It is a matter of grace alone.

As with all Catholic theology, we find ourselves ever returning to the subject of Grace—God’s unmerited gift to us. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the Angel Gabriel addressed Mary as “Full of Grace,” and we repeat the biblical phrase every time we ask her to pray for us. To be full of grace is to be void of sin, so even our prayer teaches us something about the Immaculate Conception.

Mary’s Immaculate Conception reveals to us God’s ORIGINAL plan for humanity, free of sin and open to God’s will. As the patroness of our country, diocese and cathedral, let us too have the courage to say, “Let it be done to us according to your will.”